A Phenomenon About Speed Reading.

I read with only one gear:  First gear.

I invested some time in a speed reading book a few years ago and the only thing I can remember is that when I tested my reading speed, I realized that I would almost certainly get flagged for a learning disability if someone were to evaluate me.  To be clear, my comprehension is superb. (Modesty aside.) But the slow speed would surely catch someone’s attention if they were evaluating me.

The speed reading book didn’t hold my attention.  I enjoy hearing every word I read in less than real time–mulling over any ideas that catch my attention.  I was done with the voluminous readings of grad. school, so I didn’t really see any advantage to investing my time on learning speed reading.  I went on to other things.

Fast forward to today:  I’m using my new online text for two sections of Music Appreciation this summer.  It’s a LOT of writing for the students and a shit ton of reading for the teacher (the slow-ass reader, me.)  

I’ve been gradually working on faster reading techniques over the past year and I thought I had a pretty good handle on how I was processing information.  While the goal of a course or a text is to get the students to dig in and explore each topic, the reality is that too many students are enacting convoluted contortions to minimize the amount of time they have to spend on the class work.  I’m not going to get started into that rabbit hole today, but I think any of us teachers will admit that it’s frustrating sometimes.

Meanwhile, back in my teaching garden:  The result is I’m trying to balance between accidentally reading too fast (because I’m learning the weird sensations of reading very fast) and my chronic tendency to revert to a …  Beautiful. Comfortable. Slow. …reading gait.

That’s all been exposition to set up the scene last week.  In a quiz, I asked the students to describe a creativity analytical tool I use called, “Question Theory.”  The quiz asked something like, “ What is Question Theory, and how could you use it in your own life?” A surprising number of students don’t recognize the concept from the text and proceed to invent an elaborate (sometimes humorously so) original way to combine the ideas of Questions and Creativity.

You might have guessed from the early directions of this essay that I accidentally read a student work too fast and made the terrible error of mistaking it for nonsense.  She was actually that rare student who seems to be excited about an idea from the course, and she ran with it.

In my defense, I think she technically didn’t answer the basis of the question.  In her apparent exuberance, she skipped right over the answer to, “What is Question Theory?” and wrote rather eloquently about some meta-aspects of its use.  This is not meant as a criticism–her answer demonstrated an unmistakable understanding of the definition she had skipped. [It was very interesting!]

But I missed it!  I had never encountered something like this before while reading at that faster pace.  I was driving faster than my headlights. [Metaphors!]

A day or so after grading her assignment, I got an email from this student arguing that she should not have gotten a zero on that question!  She had charts and graphs, footnotes and citations all supporting her claim for those 12 points! [That’s a bit of an exaggeration, but she really was adorably eager to support her case–and she did so thoroughly.]  

I sent her an apology and started watching out for her essays as I (more slowly now) got back to my voluminous grading chores.  When her name came up, the work was consistently excellent. Seeing her name appear in the rotation began to make me smile while wondering, “What is she going to write this time?”

I called my friend Amy who is a creative writing teacher and (so I learned) reads 900 WORDS A MINUTE!  Ridiculous.

So I says to Amy, “I’ve been experimenting with reading at faster speeds and I made a big mistake, I had no idea that, when you’re reading fast, really good answers can sometimes look like bullshit answers?”  

Amy responds, without hesitation, “Oh Yeah, that happens to me all the time!  I even have a line in my syllabus about how students need to advocate for their answers when these mistakes happen.”

I remember that clause in some of my teachers’ syllabi.  I didn’t know that was what it meant? I thought they were pouring over my every word in the same first gear that I always used…


Thanks to my excellent student and to my brilliant friend Amy!  


Bonus Link

Bonus Link 2 (Not exactly related, but interesting and accidentally found while looking for the first Bonus Link.)

Riq ME 1

Riq ME 1:                               Riq ME Master List (Link)

The Micro-etude played slowly:

The Micro-etude played slowly with counts:

The Micro-etude played at full speed.

Notes:  This one is pretty straight-forward.  5/8 time in the 3+2 configuration.  Eighth notes are counted 1&&2&.

Sierzputowski Podcast

Daniel is an old Army buddy of mine.  I’ve known him longer than just about anyone in my life today (other than my family.)

This is a wide-ranging conversation.  An index might be helpful, but I’m trying to get this stuff posted right now.  Maybe later…

A couple of topics that I remember from the conversation:

  • Dyslexia
  • Religion
  • Widowerhood

The Eye of the Marimbist

The Gist of the Series:

If you’re a serious marimbist, the following query is for you: How well have you analyzed the range of motion for each joint in your hand, wrist, and arm? How well are you aware of the placement of your feet and your center of balance? How many hours have you spent analyzing in intimate detail the interactions between the hands during each complex passage?

And how well are you aware of the exact point at which you’re looking at any given time while playing? How does your eye move from point to point and does it get there efficiently? Have you ever found that an awkward passage was solved by a simple analysis of each hand’s movement? There was that one moment where your subconscious mind moved your arm toward the black keys before your conscious mind directed it to the correction location. It was just a small movement in the wrong direction, but it got “programmed” into your motion and the passage shook from its dissonance. After the analysis, you remove the dissonant error and the passage flows like the problem never existed.

If you are like me–and who knows, maybe no one else is–then you have only rarely payed [paid?] attention to the discipline of your gaze. Over the past six months, I’ve started paying attention. This series is my attempt to formalize and share what I’ve found.

The Eye of the Marimbist 1:

Battling the Marimba’s “Picket Fence”

When we begin learning about music theory, we start with the “natural” white keys on the piano, then we name the black keys by how they relate to the white keys.  As we become more sophisticated in knowledge of theory, we incorporate information about double sharps, double flats, and the fact that white keys can also be named in an un-”natural” way.

As marimbists, we take these lessons directly to our instrument.  We think of the “black” bars as fitting in between the “white” bars.  I would like to propose a different approach that solves one particular problem:  the difficulty of playing on the scales that are mostly- (or all-) “white” bars.  When I described the material of this essay to my friend (and brilliant marimbist) Dr. Jeff Barudin, he gave me the perfect term for this white-bar phenomenon:  The Picket Fence Effect!  [I’m going to dispense with the quote marks around white and black bars…]

As we play these predominantly white scales, the eyes track across the white bars looking at the notes that are being played.  As the playing speed increases, it becomes difficult to keep the black bars in view–and they are the true landmarks of our spatial awareness on the keyboard.  Sailors have long had a term for this process:  “Dead Reckoning.”  Here is the definition that google.com gives:

“the process of calculating one’s position, especially at sea, by estimating the direction and distance traveled rather than by using landmarks, astronomical observations, or electronic navigation methods.”

I have chosen this definition because of its use of the word “landmarks.”  Once the landmarks are out of view, the sailor (or the marimbist) is left to estimate position by use of movement and direction.  The estimate sometimes cannot keep up with the amount of data that is coming into the eyes and the mallets can “slip” off of the intended track.

I believe that there is a solution to this problem and that it depends upon doing two things:

  1. Apply the techniques used when sight-reading on my keyboard instruments to playing these predominantly white bar scales.
  2. Reverse the approach that we learned in our theory classes so that our eyes fall not on the white bars as they relate to the black bars, but on the black bars alone.

When sight-reading, my eyes stay on the page.  I can see the black bars below the page via peripheral vision and I can extrapolate the position of the white bars by how they fit into the visible black bars.  For instance, I see two black bars and I know that the “D” note falls directly below the gap between the two black bars.  I have a visual/spatial image of the notes I am reading on the keyboard in my mind and I am constantly coordinating this image with the black bars that I can see in my peripheral vision.  This system is not preferable to playing from memory, but it works well for sight-reading–when 95+% accuracy is an acceptable benchmark for most of us.

Boosting that accuracy level up to nearly 100% is possible during the process I am advocating for white bar scales because of a couple of significant differences between sight-reading and playing these scales.

  1. The percentage of the brain’s processing power that would be used for the reading portion of sight-reading is not being used–it can be reallocated to prediction tasks.
  2. The black bars are not being held in the imperfect vision of the periphery, they are now under our direct gaze!

If the player can combine that visual/spatial image of the keyboard onto the input coming from the eyes that are focused on the black bars, then there is a high level of coordination between the hands and eyes–the picket fence disappears and the hands can be related directly to the simple 2+3 landmarks instead of to the blur of white bars that pass under sideways motion.

To be honest, this change will take quite a bit of work for those of us who have spent years (or decades, in my case) in training our eyes to see the white bars first, but my experience has been surprisingly positive with this new paradigm of vision.  My accuracy is increasing and the additional comfort/confidence makes the process of practicing fresh again.

Here is the “line of sight” that I am working to keep under my eyes:

White bars should be imagined (in the mental image) by their location with regard to the black keys.  The “C, E, F, and B” can be found “outside” the 2+3 landmarks, while the “D, G, and A” bars can be found “inside” the 2+3 landmarks.

This information can be combined to play chords and scales.  Here is the way the a G Major triad looks when conceived in this manner.  (Note that the “D, and G” notes are “inside” the 2 and the 3 respectively, while the “B” is found “outside” the 3.)  Retraining the eyes to “see” the chords and scales in this manner takes some time, but the benefits in accuracy on the white bar scales and chords will be well worth the effort.

There are two ways to look at a marimba. This new idea is important..

One of them, I’ve known all my life.

The other of them, I’ve only discovered.

Near the end of my career.

The new embraces black What is it?

And imagines the white.

The old sees the white

And fits in the black.

All lateral scanning must be How to do it?

Learned to read a 2 and a 3.

Scanning 7 pinched together

Blinds the player. Stormy Weather.

When to use the new? Should I use it?

Should it supplant the old?

Does it stand up to the old?

Or is it for only occasional necessity?

Never before has describing Why did I just write a poem?

A technical idea for preserving.

Come in the form of a poem.

At least not to me.




[Click here for general instructions about how to use these Micro-etudes.]

Here’s my first recording of this one.  I practiced about 30 seconds, then made this 2-ish minute recording.  I’ll now put it into my daily practice routine, then record it again when I get something I like.  This will be the practice for all of these ME’s.

MME0001 Zirkle 01MAR18

MMe Master List

Cups 1.5-3.0

Lesson Plan
Cups 1.5-3.0


  1. Age: 1.5-2.5 (So far.)
  2. Game, Artifact, Tool, ;  Social, emotional, physical, creativity, math, cognitive, 
  3. Simple Description:  This is an accessible and fun activity.  The cups are cheap enough to be plentiful and they have a lot to teach the Kiddos.  Basically, you just buy a bunch of cups and play/make up games.  It will work whether or not you read past this paragraph, and I certainly encourage you to make up your own games that sync between you and your kid–but I’ve included descriptions of some of the things Justice and I have done in order to give you some starting points.  If you have an variation that you’d like to share, please send it to me and I’ll be happy to pass it along.


Part 1 (1.5-3.0 years):

Recommended Prerequisites:  These games are highly flexible.  Justice was about 2 when we started developing these games, but he certainly could have been younger.  

Materials:  Stackable Plastic Cups.  (Think:  “Red, Plastic, Party Cups at a college.” and you’ll have the right image in your mind.  Maybe I should have said, “You’ll have an image of the correct cups in your head.”  Some people’s heads will be reminded of some quite other images by these cups.)

The SubRoutines:

  • Creating (the game)

It’s a little bit “Meta,” but this is the key lesson.  The game is literally invented by the child in collaboration with the adult.  I think you can’t start too early with exposing a child to the MANY subroutines of collaboration toward a goal.  Watch out for a motion or a serendipitously interesting thing that the cups do and see if you can involve the Kiddo in it.  Try to repeat the interesting thing as a repetition game.

  • Nesting (the cups)

When it’s time to clean up the cups that are strewn around the room, there is a fantastic opportunity to learn a few things during the stowing-cups process.  Nesting the cups in each other was fascinating to Justice.  He was eager to find any errant cups and to make sure that they were all in their nesting state.  Tangential SubR’s:  male/female (tool), open/closed, illusion of mass, leaving things as you found them, disposing of broken cups.

  • Holding together something carried (stacks of cups)

Imagine a stack of nested cups and that you’ve never tried to carry such a thing as this before?  Factually, you just recently developed any concept or ability to carry a thing from place to place.  I got to see Justice experience this very thing!  He bent down to pick up the stack by hugging it in the middle.  When he stood up, only half of the stack went with him.  His little face was a beautiful mix of confusion and deep thought.  I helped him to place his hand at the bottom of the stack so that they would stay together, but (in hindsight) I wish I’d just left him to discover it on his own.  I find that I am constantly struggling to find a balance between helping and allowing discovery.

  • Stacking

Now that I think about it, it makes sense that he wouldn’t immediately be able to stack the cups into a little three-cup pyramid, but it really did surprise me that he couldn’t do it.  I think the part that surprised me was that there was so little room for error.  If his clumsy hands placed the cup too far to either side, when he released it, it would disappear into a nesting with the cups below it.  This was frustrating to him at first, so I looked for games that were accessible to him while he learns to stack.  These could include arranging the cups into shapes on the floor, or simple counting exercises.

  • Destruction!

Maybe the most obvious game–and initially the most fun.  You build some kind of structure by stacking the cups, then Kiddo gets to knock them down.  By hand, foot, head, etc.  Ball/pillow/etc. works as a variation.

I found this variation to be a good opportunity to work on my own path to enlightenment.  This type of activity has always been extremely goal-oriented for me–by which I mean that I would set a goal to build a stack that was 10 rows high, then 12, then progressively higher until the physics couldn’t be overcome.  While playing this game, I frequently remind myself that I need to be “in the moment”:  to let go of my goals.  If Justice wanted to smash it down when there were only three rows, it would be terrible for me to scold him–interrupting his glee to explain a concept that was only in my head and that he couldn’t possibly understand.  I wasn’t always successful at staying in the moment, but I never really cried when they were knocked down.

  • Consolation

I did, however, pretend to cry.  Ceremoniously and theatrically.  🙂  Justice initially thought it was hilarious, then he did something that changed the whole game–he came up to me, cuddled his head up to my leg and said, “I’m sorry, Daddy.”  in the sweetest voice you could imagine.  …And he does it consistently EVERY time I cry because he knocked down “my” stacked cups.  I honestly couldn’t (and can’t) tell if he’s “in” on the joke or if he really thinks he’s done something wrong.  I think he’s just playing, but I don’t quite understand what’s happening and it kind of creeps me out.  I still take this path from time-to-time, because I THINK that he’s playing the game.  It’s weird, though…  [2.5 edit:  He has started making his own small stacks now and when I knock them down (with a flourish) he will start pretending to cry.  It’s adorable and I’m relieved to know that he is actually participating in the joke and isn’t going to be scarred for life by my emotional outbursts.  🙂

  • Shapes (2d and 3d!)

Triangles abound in this game.  The circle can be seen on both ends of the cup and by moving that circle to different angles, you can see ovals.  Viewing the cup from the side creates an Isosoceles Trapezoid–and that might be an quirky odd fact for a small kid to know.  …if the Kiddo gets passionate about shapes.  If multiple colors are used, other shapes and patterns can be incorporated into the stacked cups, PopPop (my Dad) was making a nice diamond pattern using blue cups in a red cup wall that we were building for Justice to break down.  

They’re trickier than I expected them to be to build, but 3-D shapes are also possible. Think “pyramid” instead of “triangle.”

  • Rhythm

I’ve thought of composing an improvised chamber piece for two cups players across a table from each other.  I’m hoping that Justice will want to compose/perform that piece with me, but that’s a ways in the future.  For now, I am just using cups as drum sticks and idiophones on the table.  We hit the table with them, hit them with chopsticks, and play with the spinning and scraping noises.  These cups can be purchased in multiple sizes (the shot-glass size is interesting) and each size makes distinctively different sounds.

  • Attrition

It seems to be an inevitable part of the game that some cups get smashed each time we take them out.  They get stepped on, caught under a rocking chair, yada yada.  I try to get Justice involved in disposing and replacing the cups.  I take him with me to buy new ones at the store and I ask him to throw the broken cups in the trash can.  This might not be a vital subR, but I suspect it might be an important one, so I’m trying to foster it.

  • Spinning

If you’ve ever spun a glass at the table and had your Mother scold you (as I did, many times), you know what this game is about.  These plastic cups spin surprising well/long.  Spinning them (similar to spinning a coin/disc) involves some dexterity that will take some time for the Kiddo to develop, but it’s great for both fine and gross motor skills.  Once the cup is spinning (and it’s spun by the parent initially) a game can be made out of who stops the spin and when the stop happens.  Try to surprise the Kiddo and make sure that you’re not always winning.  Laughter and sound effects are helpful.



  • Preparation:  This takes some space.  The type of floor will affect the games that can be played in some cases.  Carpet is good for some things (like my old butt not hurting), and a hardwood floor is better for tall stacking.
  • Tips:
    • Have fun and don’t be shy about exploring social skills via the game.  Done with a  light heart, this will almost certainly qualify as Quality Time.
    • It’s tough sometimes because you can’t see where you’re going, but try to let the Kiddo lead as much as possible.  You have to supply the “form” that the ideas are poured into, but this is an opportunity for the Kiddo to do some real exploration.  There are no wrong answers–no established rules for what will happen.  A creative adventure shared can be a memory for a lifetime.
    • Static:  PopPop and I built a long wall that curved around itself and was about 7-8 cups high.  We began to have trouble with static electricity pulling the cups out of alignment and bringing down sections of the wall.  I would like to understand the science behind this better–as it will be a great addition to this game when the Kiddo gets older.  Maybe I’ll have my physicist friend comment as a guest in a future edit.
  • Things I’d like to do to make this article better:
    • Get experience with other Kiddos.  Diversity in both age and culture should open up new doors to the game.  
    • Incorporate the ideas from this link. I think there could be some really interesting variations to the game in these rhythmic passing games from around the world.

Differentiated Instruction

I found this section in the sample lesson plan template that I modified for use on this blog.  I am curious to see if anyone is interested enough to send me info. about how they approach these issues.  [Comments, please?]  In general, at this age, I would say that I’m working hard to help Justice develop a wide set of learning styles.  I want him to be as flexible as possible in this regard.  If I saw one of these developing over the others, I would make an effort to “shore up” the other learning styles by creating games that forced him to use them.  I would be curious to see what happens in that scenario–I can think of several possible outcomes and I genuinely don’t know which one to expect.  I’ll have to come back to this when he’s a bit older.  I’ll probably be omitting this from future lessons until that happens…

  1. Visual Learners
  2. Auditory Learners
  3. Kinesthetic Learners

Bonus Links:

Competitive Stacking

Pyramid Stacking